Obituary: Bill Spanswick (1938-2020)


RIP to Bill Spanswick, a celebrated athlete in his hometown of Enfield, Conn., who pitched for a season in the majors. He died on December 2 in Enfield at the age of 82. Spanswick played for the Boston Red Sox in 1964.

William Henry Spanswick was born in Springfield, Mass., on July 8, 1938. However, he was an Enfield resident for most of his life. He wasn’t the only athlete in the family. His younger brother Jim also pitched professionally and was a part of the Red Sox and Senators organizations from 1960 to 1963. Both brothers batted and threw left.

Bill Spanswick was a standout athlete at Enfield High School, according to a story on Patch.com. He led the basketball team to a 12-4 record in his senior year, and he won 9 games in 1956 as the Enfield Raiders won the Valley Wheel Championship. He threw a no-hitter and seven 1-hitters that season. He also pitched for the John Maciolek American Legion baseball team in the summers and struck out 19 batters in a contest in 1957. Both he and Jim threw a no-hitter for the Maciolek team that summer.

Source: The News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), June 2, 1959.

Spanswick spent a year at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. In 1958, he signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox and started his professional career in Waterloo, Iowa, with the Class-D Hawks. After 6 games there, he was sent to the Lexington Red Sox of the Nebraska State League. There were a few down moments, like the time he and a bunch of fellow rookies were suspended in early August after staying out too late. That series of suspensions left Lexington with exactly 9 active players — five of whom were pitchers — for a game against Kearney. Not surprisingly, Kearney won the game 13-5. When he was on the mound, though, he was a record-setter. On August 22, he set a League record by striking out 22 batters in a 9-inning game. It was a 13-0, 1-hit shutout against Superior, which is about as dominant a performance as any pitcher has ever had. By the end of the season, Spanswick had a 7-4 record for Lexington with 142 strikeouts in 92 innings.

Spanswick enjoyed some dominant seasons in the minor leagues. He won 15 games for the Raleigh Capitals in 1959 and had a fine 2.49 ERA, in spite of a back injury that limited his appearances. He fanned 156 batters in 152 innings and was named to the League’s All-Star team. However, he may have been a little overshadowed by his roommate and friend, Carl Yastrzemski. The 19-year-old outfielder batted .377 with 15 homers and 100 RBIs in his professional debut.

Spanswick reached the AAA level midway through the 1961 season, when he was promoted to the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League. He had a chance to make the Red Sox out of spring training in 1962, but a sore shoulder led to a slow start. He was returned to Seattle and pitched poorly that season, averaging 6.5 walks per 9 innings and posting a 5-9 record.

Even after a down year, Spanswick had a fan in Johnny Pesky, who managed him in Seattle before he was named Boston skipper. “Spanswick has a real good fastball,” he said in the winter of 1962. “I like his pitching very much if only he can improve his control. That’s all he needs.” Pesky compared the lefty to pitcher Earl Wilson, who gained enough confidence over the prior season to succeed. “I hope Spanswick can do as well in the matter of getting the ball over the plate.”

Pesky was no doubt pleased with Spanswick’s turnaround in 1963, as the rookie went 14-8 for Seattle with a 3.16 ERA. He completed 14 of his 27 starts and threw a career-high 185 innings. He also fanned more than a batter an inning, with 209 strikeouts. The 24-year-old was easily the ace of the Rainiers’ staff. Though Boston was in need of a good left-handed pitcher, the team kept Spanswick in the minors for the whole season. He finally got his shot at the majors in 1964.

Pesky was ready for the lefty to prove himself. “Hell, he’s the fifth starter right now,” the manager said in the spring of ’64. “He has as good an arm as there is. Helluva curve if he can learn to break it over a little better. I’m convinced Spanswick is ready.”

Pesky gave the pitcher his MLB debut on April 18, after the Chicago White Sox had tagged Boston pitchers Wilson and Wilbur Wood for 9 runs in 3 innings. Spanswick entered in the bottom of the fourth inning and held the Sox hitless for the next 3 frames. He struck out 4, walked 3 and singled off Gary Peters for his first hit in his first major-league at-bat. He started a game against the White Sox on April 26 and allowed 2 runs (1 earned) over 5 innings in a 2-1 loss.

Pesky used Spanswick as a swingman, giving him a few more starts in the first half of the season, along with a few relief appearances. Spanswick won his first game in a start against Washington on May 8, throwing 6 innings and striking out 8 Senators while allowing 3 runs.

More often than not, though, he struggled on the mound. Boston’s Fenway Park is a notoriously rough place for lefties, and Spanswick was no exception. He had a 7.76 ERA while pitching at home on the year, and batters hit .314 off him. He fared a little better on the road, where his ERA was 6.28. His pitching improved as the season wore on — he threw 10-1/3 scoreless innings over 6 outings in the month of August, for instance. By then, he was no longer used as a starter and worked mainly as a mop-up reliever. He ended the season with a 2-3 record and a 6.89 ERA in 29 games, including 7 starts. He walked 44 batters and struck out 55 in 65-1/3 innings. He fared pretty well as a batter, with 4 hits in 14 at-bats for a .286 average.

Spanswick’s struggles may have been related to an injury he suffered while with Seattle at the end of the ’63 season. “I popped something in my elbow in the last game of the season at San Diego,” he said in late June. “I rested all winter but my arm still bothered me in spring training. It’s okay now but I just haven’t been able to get enough work.”

Spanswick never returned to the major leagues. The new Boston manager, Billy Herman, wasn’t as big a fan of him as Pesky had been. The Red Sox demoted him to the AAA Toronto Maple Leafs, and Spanswick would spent the next three seasons pitching for AAA teams in the Red Sox organization, as well as the Angels and Senators. He had some success, but he never threw more than 100 innings in spite of frequent starts. The final straw came when he pitched for three Pacific Coast League teams in the span of two weeks in 1967. He started in Seattle, was sold to Hawaii for a start, was returned to Seattle, was sold to San Diego and returned to Seattle. After that journey, he quit the game and returned to Connecticut.

Spanswick’s rookie card puts him in good company, with Boston legend Tony Conigliaro.

Unlike a lot of other major leaguers, Spanswick knew his career was over and didn’t bother on a comeback. He had spent the last couple years of his career taking shots and pain pills before every appearance to ease his aching arm. When he returned to Connecticut, he joined the Hamilton-Standard team in the Hartford Twilight league and threw a shutout. “The next morning, my arm was on fire. It was puffed up at the elbow and all black and blue,” he explained. “For three days I couldn’t straighten it out. I guess I’m done.”

After his playing career, Spanswick got into the trucking industry and eventually founded Spanswick Trucking in Enfield. He retired to Florida and worked part time as security at a Naples golf club and as an usher at JetBlue Park, the spring training home of the Red Sox. Spanswick was inducted into the Enfield Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996.

“I feel good about saying I pitched in the big leagues,” he said in 2012. “Back then, there were only eight teams in the American League. You were one of 72 guys pitching. You had to prove yourself in the minor leagues. it’s pretty special.”

For more information: Patch.com

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